Thursday, September 30, 2010

An NFL Rant

I'll be working hard to get the college and NFL picks out in a more timely fashion this week. 7-2 in the NFL so far this year and 7-3 in college (damn Sooners), so hopefully we can keep it going. Vegas took their pound of flesh on the tables, so I'm licking my wounds. Actually I'm suturing my wounds. Here is this week's rant:

I really don't understand how NFL coaches can't grasp late-game situations and think a few moves ahead. In the Monday night game Chicago had the ball on the Green Bay nine yard line, first down with 1:44 left in a 17-17 game. Green Bay had one time out left. Chicago ran for six yards, then two yards and GB then used its last timeout with 0:53 left. Chicago ran another play, the clock ran down to 0:08 seconds and the Bears kicked a 19-yard field goal to win the game 20-17. I'm screaming at the television the whole time.

This was beyond dumb clock management by Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy. The odds of the Bears turning the ball over or missing the short field goal were roughly 5%. McCarthy would have been much better off letting the Bears score and hoping his offense, one of the best in the league, could tie the game and force overtime. Yes, the odds of winning would still be low, but having 1:45 and one timeout with that offense at least gives him a chance to tie and eventually win the game.

The larger point is that NFL coaches should be put through thousands of simulations during the off-season so that they have encountered all the end-of-game simulations they might come up against and it's not being done. During the course of the football season I might see pieces of ten games during a weekend and highlights of twenty more. That's 500-600 pro and college games of which 10-20% are going to have interesting end-of-game scenarios. I'll bet NFL coaches see maybe two games a week. They are focused solely on their team and breaking down film of the next week's opponent. Sure that is what they are paid to do. But, as a result, they don't know or haven't thought enough about probabilities and end-of-game strategy. They haven't encountered all the different scenarios they might face, and thus don't make good decisions under real-time pressure.

New England coach Bill Belichick got killed last year for going for it late in a game in a 4th-and-2 scenario deep in his own territory against the Colts. It failed, but was absolutely the right move. Of course, the media didn't understand the percentages and those inside the game, shackled in their rigid style of no-risk thinking and backward-looking, results-based analysis, only saw the failure of the effort and thus saw it as the wrong move. Study after study has shown that NFL coaches and teams are way too risk-averse when encountered with various fourth down situations where they have the choice of trying to retain possession and score or turning the ball back over to the other team, but few coaches dare risk breaking the mold. Innovation and forward thinking takes place at the high school level and the college level, but rarely in the NFL.

It's ridiculous that I'm screaming at the television telling an NFL coach what to do more than once a weekend. There is inadequate teaching and preparation on the game-strategy side of the sport that can and should be easily remedied. Teams are spending millions of dollars trying to get the smallest advantage, yet they are overlooking an easy one that is virtually cost-free. I am shocked no team has really exploited this to its full advantage.

Big Changes in the American Sporting Scene

We are beginning to see a massive shift in how Americans watch sporting events. From the time the first games were broadcast sixty years ago, it has been incredibly difficult for television to replicate the "at-the-game" experience. That has now changed and the American public's habits are fast-changing as a result. HD broadcasting, the amazing capabilities of instant replay and the sophistication of production teams have given the viewer of virtually any sporting event a more visually appealing experience in his living room or the local bar than he can get at a game. Obviously the communal experience isn't replicated, but in these economic times most are willing to forgo that and save the hundreds of dollars spent on tickets, parking and food. Sixty-inch HD tv sets, a recliner and a stocked fridge are more than capable substitutes.

As a result, more and more NFL teams are facing blackout restrictions as they struggle to sell out their home games--and the NFL is the healthy league. This week alone the Chargers are virtually certain to have their second blackout of the year and the Rams, Raiders and Jaguars are all facing similar issues. That's 25% of the league's home games potentially blacked out in local markets. In baseball the Tampa Bay Rays, in a tight battle to secure their second post-season berth ever, had to give away 20,000 tickets to one of their games this week as they tried to fill their stadium. The Yankees and the Mets sodomized their fans with outrageous ticket price increases when they moved into new stadiums two years ago, turning off many in what they mistakenly believed was an endless pool of paying customers. Larger television contracts, like the one the Texas Rangers signed, will stem the tide in franchise values for a few, larger-market teams, but that trend is also now firmly in place. Values are going to fall and cost-cutting will be the only measure by which value can be retained. 

Over the last five to ten years, the owners in all the major team sports have recognized a need for fiscal sanity and have aligned their interests accordingly. The renegade, free-spending owners that dotted the landscape the past thirty years have been reigned in and businessmen looking to maintain profits have taken control. The NHL looks like a pioneer in fiscal conservatism as the owners locked out the players a few years back in order to secure a hard salary cap. That league is on its best footing in years as a result, although it most-likely will be short-lived as price and attendance increases will be impossible to sustain. The NBA will certainly follow suit with a lockout after the 2010-11 season in an effort to secure its own hard cap, and even the NFL, the undisputed king of the sporting scene, has a lockout looming this coming March because of owners' concerns about the current cost structure.

Cable broadcasts have become a staple of our sporting society and while cable bills will continue to climb, the American sporting public will happily pay because they will no longer be shelling out hundreds of dollars to attend a single game or event. This will not be glacial change, it will be rapid and permanent. Americans will consume more and more sports on television and attendance, which has begun an inexorable move down will drop precipitously, eventually resulting in lower salaries and even contraction.

The sports world is going to undergo it's biggest changes since the advent of television set this all in motion sixty years ago. And ironically, we'll all be watching--on tv, in HD.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Steelers Dominating Opposing QBs

They are a million great things to say about the performance of the Steelers' defense for the first three weeks, but I think this statistical analysis may be even more illustrative. Here is how the three opposing QBs have played against the Black and Gold and their two other opponents.

Matt Ryan                             Points   comp/att         Yds         Ypa       TD/Int      Rating
Week 1 v. Pittsburgh                 9          27/44            252          5.73          0/1           67.6
Week 2 v. Arizona                     41          21/32            225          7.03          3/0          117.3
Week 3 v. New Orleans             27          19/30            228          7.60          2/0         108.8

Vince Young (Pulled)
Week 1 v. Oakland                   38            13/17             154         9.06         2/0         142.8
Week 2 v. Pittsburgh              11              7/10               66         6.60         0/2          48.3
Week 3 v. NY Giants                29            10/16             118         7.38         1/0         105.7

Josh Freeman (Pulled-end)
Week 1 v. Cleveland                 17             17/28             182        6.50           2/1        88.7
Week 2 v. Carolina                    20             12/24             178        7.42          2/0       102.4
Week 3 v. Pittsburgh               13             20/31             184        5.94          0/1         67.1

In nine games, these three quarterbacks are 6-0 vs. the rest of the league, 0-3 against the Steelers. They have thrown 12 TDs/1 Int against the rest of the league, 0 TDs/4 Ints against Pittsburgh (not incl. Kerry Collins int.). In those other six games the lowest quarterback rating is 88.7. Against the Steelers' the highest rating is 67.6. These qbs are putting up an average of 28.6 pts/g against other teams and 11 against the Steelers (with the only two tds allowed coming in the last two minutes of each game.)

Totally dominant against quarterbacks who are carving up other teams in the league.

My Version of Frank Coonelly's End-of-Season Letter to the Fans

(When you have as bad a season as the Pirates have had, I think extraordinary candor and directness are required. Sure you aren't supposed to talk about salaries or name players, but the Pirates continued lack of success requires at least a little unconventional thinking in how to communicate with their fanbase, particularly with some of the PR gaffes that have occurred this year. Rather than parody what will be written and will undoubtedly be easy fodder, here is a crack at what I would say.)

First and foremost, I would like to thank the fans of Pittsburgh for their continued support of the Pirates. In what has been an incredibly poor year, our fans have shown great loyalty to their team. The fact that our attendance has increased from last year, and that we are one of the few teams in all of baseball that can say that, shows what a great baseball city Pittsburgh is. Our fans deserve better performances out of everyone involved in the organization - myself, general manager Neal Huntington and the players on the field. Rest assured we are going to spend the next six months doing everything possible to make sure that happens and we are working tirelessly toward the goal of building a championship-caliber organization which will make our fans and the city proud.

We have committed to spend more money going forward, but it is important to recognize that we are building and going to continue to build this organization primarily through the draft. We firmly believe the draft gives us the best opportunity to compete consistently over the long-term. Because of the structure of the major league Collective Bargaining Agreement, we have cost-certainty over our major league players for their first three years and have organizational control and slightly less cost-certainty for an additional three years. Virtually all of the players on our 40-man roster fall into these categories. While some will be receiving raises, most of those will be nominal because of the structure of the CBA. As we go about our player evaluation and make our plans for the 2011 season, others inevitably will not be with the team. So, while spending will go up and we will look outside the organization to add pieces, the final numbers may not appear dramatically different.

While many in the local and national media focus only on the final payroll number I think it is important to make sure fans know what comprises that number. Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Evan Meek are going to compose 20% of our 25-man roster next year. They will make a combined $2.5 million. We see these players as part of the core that will bring the next championship-caliber team to Pittsburgh and are committed to having them here long-term, but at this time their salaries are determined by the CBA. The agreement provides us the aforementioned cost-certainty and allows us to further evaluate the long-term skills and capabilities of all our players as we determine whether to make a further commitment to them after our six years of control. We will not just spend money to reach a certain payroll number. We would much prefer to continue to invest in our Dominican Academy, our other initiatives in Latin America, and the draft, where we have spent more money than any team in baseball over the last three years.

As most fans are aware, general manager Neal Huntington is responsible for all the organization's baseball decisions. At the end of the year, Neal gets evaluated like everyone else. Neal is also tremendously disappointed with the performance on the field at the major league level. It is his job to get that right and he knows we expect more. But, and let me stress this, Neal has been directed to focus on building this organization through the draft. Drafting takes time, years of teaching and development, and while Alvarez is the only player from his three drafts to ascend to the major league level so far, the early returns appear positive, highlighted by Altoona's championship at the Class AA level.

Neal did not have an abundance of assets available to him when he took over the organization. In addition to the draft, he has worked on replenishing those assets through trades. Trading has met with limited success, but we are pleased with players like Ross Ohlendorf, Joel Hanrahan and James McDonald, who we also see as important parts of our long-term plan, and others in our minor league system, like Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke and Andrew Lambo, for whom we have high hopes. As we have said, we will continue to make any trade that we feel strengthens the organization. No player is ever untouchable. Mr. Nutting and I continue to believe Neal is the right man to lead this organization at this time and he has our full support to continue the plan he began implementing three years ago.
As you know, we recently announced our decision to let go of John Russell and his staff. We thank them for their service to the organization during our rebuilding process and wish them success in the future. John has decades of experience at all levels of baseball and we have offered him another position within the organization.

Our search for a new manager and coaching staff is underway. It will not be conducted through the media. We will do a comprehensive search and make an announcement when we have reached an agreement. We will work hard to identify the right person who can continue to work with our core of young players and help them to develop into the nucleus of talent that brings championship-caliber baseball back to Pittsburgh. That's what you deserve.

Thank you for your support.


Frank Coonelly,
President, Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball Club

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Some Quick Thoughts on College

3-1 last week on the college picks to push the season record to 4-1. I didn't love anything early although I was leaning with NC St. Here are some brief thoughts on some later games. As with my pro picks in the previous entry, I like the chalk this week.

Stanford -4.5 at Notre Dame
If you are an Irish fan the good news is Brian Kelly definitely has this team on the right track despite some questionable in-game coaching decisions. The bad news is that he needs another recruiting class or two to get ND back among the elite. Dayne Crist is the real deal at quarterback for Notre Dame, but Stanford qb Andrew Luck is even better. I'm staying with the Cardinal this week as I don't think the Irish defense can keep it within one touchdown. On the Cardinal laying the points.

Oklahoma -14 at Cincinnati
Oklahoma was my lone loss last week as they never really had a shot to cover against a game Air Force squad. I expect better this week against a Cincinnati team which lost its coach, quarterback and best playmaker in the offseason. Boomer Sooner.

Alabama -7 at Arkansas
I like this line now that it is back to -7/even. Alabama is really good and having all their players back and healthy should be enough. I do think Arkansas is the real deal and expect them to make some noise in the SEC, but it just isn't going to happen today, even with Bill Clinton and Jerry Jones in attendance.

Florida St. -20 at Wake Forest
Wake's defense might be the worst in the country. I got against them last week at Stanford and they didn't disappoint giving up 62.  They may score 20, but they'll give up at least 45 today against an FSU team that seems to be back to it's winning ways after getting waxed by Oklahoma. This is an anti-Wake bet more than anything.

Auburn -3 vs. South Carolina
This is the Ol' Ball Coach's best team since departing Florida and the Gamecocks got a very impressive win on the road last week in Athens. Asking them to do it two weeks in a row is too much. Look for a surprisingly easy win for the Tigers.

Friday, September 24, 2010

NFL Week Three, from Vegas

Another winning week last week getting me to 5-1 in the NFL so far this year. Here is what I like on Sunday, road teams and chalk are the themes:

Pittsburgh -2.5 at Tampa Bay
As mentioned, I'm actively trying to avoid getting involved in Steelers' games because of my rooting interest, but as with the first two weeks, there is real value here even though Pittsburgh is favored for the first time this season. Charlie Batch gets the start this week and it's quite possible the Steelers will start four different quarterbacks during weeks 2-5. Batch is going to be the quintessential game manager in this one, but I actually expect him to have some success throwing the ball. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman is very gifted, but like Matt Ryan and Vince Young, he is going to be in for a tough afternoon against the NFL's best defense. Tampa is getting better, but the 2-0 start came against Cleveland and Carolina two of the worst teams in the league. I see the Steelers winning this one by double digits.

Cincinnati -3 at Carolina
Staying on the Bengals again this week as well, as they head to Carolina. Cincinnati has some injuries on the defensive side of the ball, but they are fortunate to run into a Panthers team that is already changing quarterbacks two weeks into the season. Golden Domer Jimmy Clausen takes over for Matt Moore. It smacks of desperation from head coach John Fox who probably doesn't survive after this season. Cincinnati will load the box to stop DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and dare Clausen to beat them. A steady dose of Cedric Benson should be the answer for the visitors. I'll lay the three.

Washington -3.5 at St. Louis
I really like Sam Bradford and if nothing else, the first two weeks of the season have proven how important quarterbacks are in this league. But young qbs rarely have consistent success and I'm sure defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will have some tricks ready to go for Bradford. I don't love the Skins because I don't think they have enough weapons on offense, but Donovan McNabb seems to have settled in and I still think Clinton Portis is a useful back. Washington let one get away last week against the Texans. I don't think they'll let this one get away.

I'm going to take a lot at a few other games tomorrow and see if there is anything else I like. Hopefully I'll have my college picks, in abbreviated form, up early tomorrow. You can always follow my picks in real time on twitter @hammerspeaks.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

NFL: Cashin' in on Week 2

I figure if I go 3-0 every week I won't have to worry about spamming the blog out to find readers. If I go 3-0 every week there are a lot of things I won't have to worry about any more. Ain't gonna happen, but let's see what we have for this week.

One common mistake after the first game of the season is for people to feel like what they saw in week 1 is exactly what they are going to get from that team every week. I think we can take advantage of that here in week 2 as some lines have moved based on last week.

Cincinnati +2.5 vs. Baltimore
A week ago Cincinnati would have been favored in this game, but they looked terrible in the first half against New England and the game was over. Opportunity. Both these teams expect to have success through the air this year and both feel they have a quarterback that can make that happen. Joe Flacco is seen as one of the emerging stars in the league, but I think Carson Palmer will prove he is still the better of the two. Cincinnati has the better secondary and I think that will be the difference here.  Cedric Benson ran for over 100 yards in both games between these divisional opponents last year and after Palmer softens the Ravens up with the pass, I think Benson will have another big day on the ground. I expect the Bengals to win this one outright at home.
Fact: Since 2004 Carson Palmer is 8-3 against the Ravens.

Pittsburgh +5.5 at Tennessee
As mentioned, I don't like recommending a play on the Steelers because of my rooting interest but this line is really off the mark. The Steelers defense looked fantastic last week in shutting down Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith are back and Lawrence Timmons' performance may mean the Steelers have three bowl linebackers. Chris Johnson is a beast, but he has failed to gain 70 yards in either of his two games against the Steelers. Pittsburgh will fill the box again on Sunday and make Vince Young beat them--and I don't think he will.  I don't see the Titans scoring more than 17 points which means the Steelers only need 12 to cover. Dennis Dixon, 2-0 ATS as a starter, will again be running the offense and I expect (hope?) to see some plays designed to get him on the edge. I like the Steelers and I would put a few nickels on the money line as well as I expect Pittsburgh not only to cover, but to win.
Fact: Chris Hoke will start for an injured Casey Hampton at NT. The Steelers are 15-0 in the regular season when Hoke starts.

Dallas -7 vs. Chicago
Dallas lost to Washington last week even though they dominated the game in ever statistical category. The play call at the end of the first half which resulted in a Redskins touchdown will go down as the dumbest of the year. Chicago, with four turnovers and nine penalties, wasn't much better. They would have lost to Detroit were it not for the ridiculous non-touchdown call on Calvin Johnson's catch in the last two minutes. The difference is the Cowboys are actually a pretty good team, Chicago isn't. I expect the Cowboys to rebound in a big way at home. Getting two starters back on the offensive line will be a big help. Look for Romo to go downfield early and get the home crowd involved. Jay Cutler is still way too careless with the ball. I expect Dallas to win by at least two touchdowns.
Fact: The Bears haven't gone 2-0 since they were in the Super Bowl.

I'll have a late game pick on twitter @hammerspeaks tomorrow.

Friday, September 17, 2010

College Picks Live from Knoxville

This college edition of The Hammer Speaks is coming at you from Knoxville, Tennessee. I'll be attending my maiden SEC game tomorrow as the Florida Gators come into Knoxville to take on the Vols. Tennessee is coming of an embarrassing showing against Oregon last week at home, giving up 45 straight points in a 48-13 loss. I imagine the Volunteers' faithful will be happy if they keep this one close, with Florida a 14-point favorite. Tennessee couldn't handle Oregon's team speed last week and I don't think they'll have any more success containing Florida this week. I'd lean with the Gators but am going to pass because I'd like to hear the locals sing Rocky Top at least a couple of times.

I've waited to get involved in the college action because I wanted to see teams play a game or two to get a feel for them. The NFL has much greater continuity and the preseason is of some value so I felt more comfortable jumping right in on Week 1. I've only made one college pick so far and that was for Alabama to blow out Penn St. last week. Bingo. I'm not sure there will be an easier game to pick all year. I hit small with NC St. last night but didn't post it, so the blog is 1-0 coming into this week. Last week I took the points in the NFL. In the college games this week I like the chalk. Here are my thoughts:

Alabama -23.5 at Duke
In 2008 former Tennessee offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe took over a Duke program that had won ten games in its previous eight seasons. He has put up a 10-16 record in his brief tenure and made teams pay attention when the Blue Devils are on the schedule. The biggest transformation has been on offense, where Duke put up 41 points in their season opening win against Elon and followed that up with 48 last week against Wake Forest. The problem is Elon scored 27 and Wake scored 54, so Duke stands at 1-1 coming into this SEC/ACC mismatch. Alabama will be bolstered by the return of Heisman Trophy winning running back Mark Ingram who missed the first two games due to injury and BCS championship game defensive MVP defensive end Marcell Dareus who was suspended by the NCAA. Alabama easily handled Penn St. last week and I don't think they'll have any trouble on the road in this one. Duke will find points much more difficult to generate and 'Bama can pretty much name their score. Roll Tide.

Stanford -17.5 vs. Wake Forest
Both teams come into this game 2-0 and each opened their conference schedule with a win last week. As mentioned above Wake beat Duke 54-48 in the second-highest scoring game in ACC history while Stanford absolutely dominated UCLA 35-0 on the road in the Rose Bowl. Stanford's sophomore quarterback Andrew Luck has thrown six TDs and zero INTs so far and many think he is best qb in the country. Freshman Tanner Price will get his first start at quarterback for Wake after taking over for the injured Ted Satchitas last week. Wake has scored more than 50 points in each of its first two games, but Stanford is seventh nationally in total defense. They are gonna feast on the frosh. This game starts after 11pm EST Saturday night. That is probably good because that means a lot of people back east and particularly in Winston-Salem won't see the Demon Deacons get taken to the woodshed. The Cardinal, big.

Oklahoma St. -6.5 vs. Tulsa
The Cowboys are again an offensive juggernaut scoring 106 points in their first two games. They blew out Washington St. in week 1, but failed to cover in their 41-38 win over Troy last week due to five turnovers. Tulsa is solid against the run but has allowed over three hundred yards passing on average in their first two games against East Carolina (51-49L) and Bowling Green (33-20W). I look for the Cowboys to win by double digits at home.

Oklahoma -16.5 vs. Air Force
Oklahoma has had a tough task defensively opening with Utah St., Florida St. and Air Force. All three run completely different offenses and cause different match-up problems for the defense. Air Force comes into Norman this week averaging 423 yards rushing in its first two games, over 90 more yards than any other team in the country. The question for Bob Stoops and his staff is how to prepare for the triple option when they know they won't see it again for at least two years. The Falcons run it to precision and have year-in and year-out shown they can compete with more physically-gifted teams. For the Sooners, they are getting the benefit this year of having to throw QB Landry Jones into the fire last year as a result of Sam Bradford's injury. Jones was great last week going 30-40, for 380 yards and four TDs as he carved up FSU. I see more of the same this week and expect the Sooners to fill the box with nine, daring Air Force to throw. It won't be a blowout, but I like OU to cover.

Other games I like, but not as strongly are Wisconsin -12.5 vs. Arizona St. and USC -11.5 at Minnesota.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The NSFW Smorgasbord: Off-Color Thoughts

[Note: Still trying to find The Hammer Speaks' niche in the blogging landscape. Your continued comments on the blog and emails are helpful. I'm not sure that "breaking news" like the Tomlin press conference is useful since you can read it in the paper the next day, so keep firing away on what you like and what you don't. A little different format today with links to some of the many things that I see on the web mixed in with an eclectic bunch of thoughts. Like it or not, please let me know. The radio show appears to be on hold for the time being. Yes, I'll tell you where to send the outraged emails. Or feel free to start a facebook page. Free the Hammer.

Oh, and by the way, the language gets a little amped up in this post. If that isn't your style you should probably just skip it.]

***ESPN's 30-for-30 sports documentary series got rave reviews when it came out of the chute, but it's now officially off the rails. First it was "One Night in Vegas" about Mike Tyson and Tupac Shakur. How do you fuck that up? My god, you don't have to draw any connection between the two and you can make a great documentary. This film portrays the two as best friends and talks about Tupac being "brutally gunned down." You wanna get a flavor for why Tupac was gunned down that night? Check out this video (NSFW). Mockin' Biggie's death and MFing every guy from the east? That's the shit that'll start a mutherfuckin' gang war. Don't try to pull on my heartstrings with Tupac and Iron Mike. As Tupac says, "Fuck you too!"

Then last night I was looking forward to watching "Unmatched" about the great tennis rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. This was another easy one. You had the All-American girl from Florida, the Ice Princess, juxtaposed with the muscular, Czechoslovakian-born defector who couldn't control her on-court emotions. One or the other finished the season ranked number one in the world for twelve consecutive years. It became maybe the greatest rivalry in the history of sports. They played each other eighty times, sixty of which were tournament finals. Throw in Chris' multiple marriages and relationships and the fact that Martina was one or the first athletes ever to admit she was gay and an hour didn't seem like enough time.

Wrong. You're better off taking ten minutes and reading the Wiki links I connected above. Not enough on the tennis and way too much of the "I was great, you were great. We became best friends and she was always there for me," bullshit. Seriously this docu-drama should have been on Lifetime. Editing a few hours of conversation they had together and interspersing it with some tennis highlights was a complete hatchet job. And, of course, with no moderator or interviewer they didn't go anywhere remotely controversial. My lasting teenage boy crush on Chrissie is officially shattered and 30-for-30 is now about 12-for-21.

***When did Tony Dungy become the sports world's moral compass? I've got some love for Tony because he played most of his time with the Black & Gold and he generally seems like a good guy. But seriously, this shit has gotten out of hand. Deadspin beat me to this a few days back, so I won't rant too long. I understand helping Michael Vick. Dungy had just gotten out of coaching and was going to help young players who got in trouble. Maybe it's because his own son committed suicide, a topic that is now officially off limits to the mainstream media, who knows? But I do think the intentions were good.

But now it's getting absurd. Every person remotely connected with sports who gets in trouble and wants redemption turns to Dungy for the halo-effect. It's starting to look like Dungy is second, behind the Catholic Church, in sales of absolution. Worse, he is now proselytizing about every issue that comes down the pike. Calling Rex Ryan out for dropping too many f-bombs on Hard Knocks or telling Reggie Bush to give back the Heisman Trophy is a bridge too far for me. Tony, shut the hell up and go back to working with the young men you seemed so committed to helping a few years ago.

***Peter King of Sports Illustrated has become the dean of NFL writers. I think his work in the magazine is really good, but his on-line column has gone way down hill. I'm tired of sports writers who cherry-pick examples to suit their position or create a strawman to argue against a position nobody holds. In Monday's "Monday Morning QB" King says this about the Pats Brandon Tate:
Here's the not-so-secret weapon the Patriots have been thinking all summer long would pay dividends once the real games started. Tom Brady bragged about him to me in May, and Tate blew through the Ram kick-coverage team in preseason Week 3 for a 97-yard touchdown. Against the Bengals Sunday, he grabbed a bouncing kickoff and sprinted/weaved untouched 97 yards for a crippling touchdown.
Then two paragraphs later he writes:
The Raiders were a chic pick to be decent in the preseason. Decent, in Oakland, would sell a lot of tickets. But their impressive performance in exhibition games -- another great example of why we should ignore the summer completely -- was erased in Nashville. 
Which is it Peter? Is the preseason important or a waste of time? If I start doing this please call me out. Tuesday's "MMQB-Tuesday", after the Ravens' Monday night game, King writes:
I think the Ravens are one heck of a team -- with a very strong organization to back them up. How about secretly moving Marshal Yanda from guard to right tackle? How about the impact play of Tom Zbikowski, whom all the other teams found holes in before the 2008 draft?
Secretly moving a guy from right guard to right tackle? This is ridiculous. The Ravens did this due to need and how secret do you think it was and how long was it going to stay that way? There is nothing secret about the NFL anymore. The reason teams get fined if they aren't upfront about injuries is that gamblers and fantasy football players would go crazy if they didn't know beforehand if a guy was going to play or not play. Those two activities drive interest in the league as much as anything else and you better believe Roger Goddell and the people in the NFL office know it. Highlighting the impact of a "secret" move of one player from guard to tackle is laughable.

As for Zbikowski, he was a third round draft choice out of Notre Dame, the 86th player and the fourth safety taken overall. "All the other teams found holes in," is an absurd thing to say about a guy taken in the third round. The next safety taken by the way, Thomas DeCound, 98th by Atlanta, is seen as a much better player, so you could argue the Ravens actually blew the pick. And here is what Mike Duffy, Ravens beat reporter for, tweeted after Monday night's game and the "impact" plays of Zbikowski:
[Coach] Harbs said he's "disappointed" in Zbikowski's punt return duty. Made some tough catches but has to make better decisions on that near-safety.
From Rotoworld:
Zbikowski nearly blew the game for the Ravens, running backwards and getting tackled on the cusp of his own end zone. Cornerback Chris Carr and several undisclosed candidates will try out in practice this week. 
Add this to the 1,000 words he writes each week about coffee, travel and charities (I choose my own, thanks) and I'm about to drop Mr. King from the rotation. How about fewer words and better content? Probably good advice for me as well. I'll stop the rant and come back with the thoughts and links in the next post.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Quick Hits from Tomlin's Presser

Steeler coach Mike Tomlin just finished his presser. Here are the highlighs:

*The injury report was very good. Casey Hampton's hamstring injury does not appear to be serious and he may practice toward the end of the week. Max Starks' ankle sprained was misreported as a high-ankle sprain. It's a low ankle sprain and he may also practice toward the end of the week. Quarterback Byron Leftwich is making progress and may take some snaps in practice this week.

My Take: All of these reports are better than expected. I wouldn't anticipate any of three dressing this week, but it appears they all may be ready in the next week or two. Better than originally anticipated.

*Flozell Adams "is a right tackle" according to Tomlin. Historically, The Hotel played the left side and he has been making the transition with the Steelers this year. Tomlin will not move him if Starks can't go. He made it clear Jonathan Scott would start at left tackle after coming on to replace Starks during the game this week. Tony Hills and Ramon Foster will vie to back up tackle position.

My Take: Not moving Adams is the right choice. Starks will be back soon enough and Adams should stay and continue to improve and get comfortable on the right side. I'm surprised Hills wasn't considered as a possible starter this week, but as I've mentioned, line play is the hardest thing for a fan to evaluate. You have to see the film.

*Dennis Dixon was not told not to run and Tomlin is only concerned "about moving the chains." He basically said if running helps the team do that than so be it.

My Take: As I mentioned in my game recap, the Steelers need to design plays that occasionally put Dixon on the edge and take advantage of his speed and quickness. I would expect to see more of that this week.

*According to Tomlin, Atwaan Randle El did a nice job of securing the football on punt returns and making good decisions. He admitted that Antonio Brown brings a different dimension to the return game and his performance in practice along with the team's game planning would determine if he dresses this week.

My Take: The Steelers need to take advantage of all the weapons they have in this game. While it isn't the perfect scenario for Brown to get his first work, I would dress him and use him to return punts. Arnaz Battle dressed this past week but was a non-factor. I would give Brown a helmet and make Battle inactive.

*As always Coach Tomlin spoke highly of this week's opponent and singled out Chris Johnson. It will be the first time the Steelers take on the Titans with Vince Young as the starter.

My Take: This will be a very tough game for the Steelers. They need to shutdown Johnson and make Vince Young beat them. At the same time, Dixon needs to play better in order for the Steelers to win.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Thoughts on the Steelers' Opener

Dennis Dixon, QB: Dixon was making his second career start.* He did fine. Good performances early in the exhibition season excited Steeler fans, but then his miserable outing with the first-teamers against Denver tempered all enthusiasm. The goal yesterday was not to have Dennis Dixon lose the game. In that respect it was successful.

I had a conversation with friends during the second half about what Ben Roethlisberger was doing at that moment and the conclusion we came to was that he was probably smashing his living room to pieces with a baseball bat. I have no doubt Ben would have thrown for a ton of yards and led the Steelers to an easy victory yesterday. It probably wasn't an easy game for him to watch. Dixon continually underthrew receivers and on more than one occasion he failed to make the routine play.  Also, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians inexplicably failed to take advantage of Dixon's mobility by rolling the pocket or getting him on the edge with a naked bootleg. If the Steelers don't do that Sunday in Tennessee it will be a very long day.

Dixon did complete 18-26 for 236 yards and made some good throws downfield at important moments, particularly a 52-yarder to Mike Wallace, but he needs to play better the next three weeks.

 *His first came last year against the Ravens in Baltimore. I've said this many times, but let me get it out there once more. There is a misconception that Dixon played really well in that game. He didn't. It's true he was constrained because the Steelers' coaches didn't want him running the ball without a viable backup, but he really did not play well. He made some good throws in the first half, but was awful in the second half and threw a game-losing interception in overtime.

Offensive Line: The team's biggest concern the past few years, the O-line was pretty good yesterday. Maurkice Pouncey started and was solid at center. Flozel Adams* was only flagged for one false start and the line did a good job of protecting Dixon until they gave up back-to-back sacks near the end of regulation. The only downside was Max Starks' high-ankle sprain which probably means he's out until after the bye week. I would give Tony Hills the start at left tackle in his place.

*I have resigned myself to Adams getting on false start penalty a game and one holding penalty every other game. It's just the way it's going to be.

Rashard Mendenhall, RB: "Spinner." Mendenhall must have spun on at least half of his twenty-two carries. That's a dangerous move in the NFL because you can get killed by a blindside hit and you're more vulnerable to getting the ball stripped. But it seems to work for Rashard. Mendenhall's fifty-yard gallop on the Steelers only offensive play of overtime (he didn't spin) was the game-winner. He got great blocking up front and showed good top-end speed, outrunning a DB to the end zone. He's the real deal and is going to have to continue to carry the team until Ben is back.

The defense was outstanding. In my pregame analysis Sunday morning*, I felt like the defense would be the story. After blowing five late leads last year they needed to show they could still close games out. Mission accomplished. Atlanta ran for 58 yards on 25 carries and didn't score a touchdown. My major concern was with the pass defense and the Steelers looked much improved. Even though Matt Ryan threw for 252 yards he only averaged 5.2 yards/attempt, the key statistic.

*You can see my picks from the past week here. I went 3-0 on my NFL picks and 1-0 in college. You can also get them on twitter here.

Lawrence Timmons and Bryant McFadden, in particular, were fantastic. Timmons had nine tackles including three for loss and McFadden added 12 tackles. Troy Polamalu, back after playing only five games last year, made a highlight-reel interception in the last two minutes that should have won the game for the Steelers in regulation. Both outside backers recorded sacks. Again the only blemish was injury-related as Casey Hampton went out in the second quarter with a pulled hamstring. Ziggy Hood and Chris Hoke will see more playing time as a result.

The improvement here was massive. Dan Sepulveda and the cover units were both fantastic. Sepulveda averaged 50.8 yards on five punts and had a net of 47. His booming punt inside the last two minutes kept Atlanta pinned in their own end and helped set up Polamalu's interception. The cover units looked nothing like last year. Second-round pick Jason Worilds showed why he got a helmet when he leveled a Falcon punt returner in the first half, while special teams ace Anthony Madison was held on the opening kickoff of overtime giving the Falcons terrible field position to start extra time.

I don't know if it was due to the good weather, but Jeff Reed was bombing the ball. He had one touchback and was otherwise getting his kickoffs inside the five. He nailed a Heinz Field record 52-yard field goal to get the Steelers on the board early and also converted a 36 and 34-yarders. He hit the right upright on a 55-yard attempt that would have been good from 60+. Yes, he missed a 40-yarder that should have won the game, but overall, the performace was very encouraging.

CONCLUSION: Coach Mike Tomlin's four first round draft picks all had a big hand in the Steelers win, with Timmons and Mendenhall the best players on each side of the ball. The defense still looks exceptionally stout against the run and the return of McFadden and Polamalu makes a huge difference in the secondary. Special teams had to improve and the early returns are good. The coverage units look very fast and athletic. There is room for improvement in the return game and it will be interesting to see when Tomlin decides to trust Antonio Brown rather than go the conservative route. Dennis Dixon will still be the guy who determines how the Steelers get through these four games. A performance like this one and they most likely go 2-2. But, if we see some improvement, 3-1 is much more likely. The toughest test will be this week in Tennessee.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Picks and Predictions

A few thoughts from Saturday's college action:
  • Alabama laying 11.5 will end up being the easiest play of the whole college football season. Penn St. was starting a true freshman at quarterback in a night game on the road. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram didn't play but his replacement Trent Richardson is and was plenty good. I figured 'Bama by 30. It would have been if they didn't call off the dogs in the fourth quarter.
  • Michigan sophomore QB Denard Robinson is now the clear front runner for the Heisman. Last week he set a record with 383 yards of total offense in the Wolverines' win over UConn. Saturday at Notre Dame he shattered that by rushing for 258 and passing for 244. His 87 yard touchdown run was the longest in Notre Dame Stadium history. Michigan has been playing football since 1879. Robinson has started two games. His name is now first and second in the record books for total offense.
  • Who knew James Madison would have a big role in determining the national champion? By beating Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, they killed any chance Boise St. had of playing in the championship game.
  • The ACC is terrible. Va Tech lost to JMU. Oklahoma blew out Florida St. Georgia Tech lost to Kansas. Miami, the only good team in the conference, lost to Ohio State. Get out the basketballs.
  • I hope Tennessee plays better next week when I go down there to watch them host Florida. I also hope I don't have to sit through a 70 minute weather delay. Oregon hung up 45 straight after being down 13-3. I don't think they'll be singing Rocky Top on campus tonight.

The NFL kicks off today so I'll go on the record with my season predictions and some of the games I like. You can read my Cashing in on the NFL article here. If you follow me on Twitter (@hammerspeaks) you got the Alabama pick yesterday and you'll get a couple more picks this afternoon. All for free.

Pittsburgh +2.5 vs. Atlanta: I have a different take on this game. Everybody is focused on the quarterback position. I think the story is the Steelers' defense. They were fifth in the league last year, but they didn't play that well and they gave up a bunch of late leads. Polamalu and Smith are back and Timmons looks like he is ready to be a star. I think Dixon will be fine. I like the Steelers getting the points at home.

Detroit +6.5 at Chicago: This is the biggest line of the week. I don't expect Bears coach Lovie Smith to survive this season. Bringing in Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and teaming him with Jay Cutler is the last act of a desperate man. Detroit seems to finally be on the right track. Stafford-to-Johnson will be a Pro Bowl combination soon enough. Look for Detroit to keep this one close.

Jacksonville -3 vs. Denver: I don't particularly like either of these teams, primarily because I'm not sold on either quarterback (you can read my ranking of all 32 starters here). I do like Maurice Jones-Drew, however. Denver's banged up and I think they'll lose the battle along both lines. Look for MJD to have a big day and for Jax to cover easily.

Season Prediction:
In the AFC I have the Steelers beating the Texans. In the NFC I have the Niners beating the Packers.  Yea, I'm biased. All the fun starts in about twelve hours. Enjoy the games.

I'll have some more picks out on Twitter later today.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Ranking the NFL QBs

Everybody's pumped up. Football season starts tomorrow. I will be bringing you tons of analysis, insight, wit and humor that you won't find anywhere else. And it's all free. In fact it may make you money. If you like to make the occasional wager I suggest you follow me on twitter at @hammerspeaks. I will be tweeting Friday, Saturday and Sunday in real time about the things I see and the games I like. It's more interactive and quicker. I may even, begrudgingly, answer fantasy football questions. Get involved. Let's kick off the 2010 season with a look at the QBs.

Quarterback in the NFL, the second most important position in all of team sports, is the glamor position. A goalie in the NHL has a more significant impact on the outcome of a contest, but football is America's game and quarterbacks get their names on the marquee. I've ranked this year's 32 NFL starters. Here's how they break down:

This is the easy group. They've all won at least one Super Bowl. They consistently play at the highest level. These are the guys that you'd want your daughter to marry.  Well, okay, maybe not Ben.

1.) Peyton Manning, IND: Manning is now in the discussion about who is the best player in the history of the league. The strikes against him are some notable failures in big games and the fact that he's only 9-9 in the playoffs. The interception against the Saints in last year's Super Bowl has happened a few too many times for him to wear that crown. But Manning is amazing to watch. It's the conductor leading the symphony when Peyton takes the Colts down the field in the no-huddle. Since his rookie season he's 128-48 and he's never missed a start. His QB rating has been 95.0 or higher every year since 2003. He alone makes the Colts a contender. Surprisingly he's still only 34. What most impresses me about Manning is the respect he gets from players all over the league. They all want to play with him. The players know.

2.) Drew Brees, NO: Playing for the perfect coach in Sean Payton, Brees is flourishing. Undersized but remarkably accurate, Brees probably wouldn't have made it in the 1980s NFL. 2009? MVP and Super Bowl champion. Right guy, right place, right time.

3.) Tom Brady, NE: This will be an interesting season for Brady. After missing all of 2008, he came back and had a good, not great, 2009. Giselle's husband's legacy is cemented but it will be interesting to see how he plays with a chip on his shoulder, especially since the team around him might be the weakest it's been while he's been at the helm. One more Super Bowl title and he'll get in that conversation with Manning about best ever.

4.) Ben Roethlisberger, PIT: Ben's personal problems are now permanently part of his bio and he'll miss the first four games of this season due to suspension. Nonetheless, he is a great player who already owns two Super Bowl rings. He has a rare combination of size and elusiveness and has been successful even though he rarely been surrounded by the talent or enjoyed the stability that the guys above him have. He's 60-26. He has an 8-2 record in the playoffs. In the two losses they scored 27 and 29 points. That says it all.

Anyone of these guys could easily jump up to the bottom of the group above. They just have to get it done when it really matters. In the playoffs.

5.) Philip Rivers, SD: After the 2005 season the Chargers had to choose between Brees and Rivers, who had spent his first two seasons on the bench. They went with Rivers and it's hard to argue they made the wrong choice. Since taking over he's gone 46-18. Not bad. He's a fiery leader who should be in his prime at age 29. He's led the league in yards/attempt the last two years and if the Chargers can put enough talent on the defensive side of the ball I have no doubt Rivers can take them to the Bowl.

6.) Aaron Rodgers, GB: The poor bastard had to sit behind Brett Favre for three years. That would crush most guys. In 2008, his first year as starter and without much help, Rodgers led the Pack to a 6-10 record. Last year they went 11-5 and he threw for more than 4,400 yards. This year the Packers are many people's NFC Super Bowl team. We'll see if Rodgers, maybe the most physically talented quarterback in the league, can get them there.

7.) Matt Schaub, HOU: It's impossible to be an unknown NFL QB, but Schaub comes closest. He's also the most underrated player in the game. The knock against him is that he's only 19-21 as a starter and has yet to get his team to the playoffs. That's a pretty big knock. But Schaub has all the tools and I think he's a darkhorse MVP candidate after throwing for a league-leading 4,770 yards last year. I expect Schaub to put up huge numbers and Houston to make its first playoff appearance this year.

8.) Tony Romo, DAL: I'm not sure what I think about Romo. His QB rating has been incredibly consistent all four years (between 91.4 and 97.6) and he's 38-17 as a starter. But his team has been loaded with offensive weapons and he's only 1-3 in the playoffs. He turned 30 in April so he isn't a kid anymore. Expectations are off the charts this year in Big D and Vegas has them as one of the favorites to win it all. Needless to say, this is a big year for him.

These guys all have tons of talent but seem to be heading in the wrong direction.

9.) Carson Palmer, CIN: The poster boy for guys who never made "the leap." In Palmer's case it's really more that he couldn't sustain it. In 2005 he led the league in TDs and completion percentage then tore his knee up in the first quarter of the Bengals playoff loss to Pittsburgh. He hasn't been the same player since. Like Romo he's 30. This year he'll be trying to guide the Bengals to back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since '81-'82. To do it, he'll need to regain the form that made him one of the NFL's three best QBs five years ago. Babysitting his two diva receivers may end up being a bigger challenge.

10.) Brett Favre, MIN: I was actually rooting for Favre to come back this year. Yes, he's an egotistical, attention-seeking, self-centered bitch. Yes, I've rooted against him my whole life. But, for some reason, I've kinda started to like him. His toughness is beyond legendary and he does have fun when he's winning. Last year he might have played the best football of his life. I don't think he can repeat it, but it will be fun watching--good or bad.

11.) Donovan McNabb, WAS: He's on the downside of a very good, not great, career. He should be able to get the Skins to seven or eight wins, but they just don't have enough good players. We've seen the best of Donovan and my expectations are low from here on out.

12.) Eli Manning, NYG: I'll never fully get my head around the fact that Eli Manning won a Super Bowl. I just don't think he's that good. I put him here just because I didn't want to take a load of crap for putting him 20th.

These guys are at various stages of trying to solidify their future as NFL quarterbacks and get paid in their next contract. A bad year and few of them will never get another chance to start.

13.) Matt Ryan, ATL: I didn't think he was great when he was at BC, but he's been very solid in his first two years. I'll get to see him in person for the first time on Sunday at Heinz Field. The Falcons have high hopes this year and getting an opening day win on the road would do a lot of good for everyone's confidence. I'll know a lot more about Ryan after week one.

14.) Joe Flacco, BAL: Everyone but me loves Joe Flacco. What's not to like: prototypical QB size at 6'6" and 230 lbs. Guided his team to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. Good teammate. Got it. I'm on record as saying the Ravens aren't making the playoffs this year. I don't think their defense is going to be as good as in years past and I think Flacco is going to take a step back--even with the additions of Boldin and Houshmandzadeh. Gut feel. Bet all your money.

15.) Jay Cutler, CHI: Jay Cutler and Mike Martz together. Wow. 24-29 career record as a starter. If he has another bad year I'm just going to chalk it up to him being too dumb. I can't come up with any other reason. Really.

16.) Jason Campbell, OAK: This guy has had a rough ride and I'm now rooting for him. I've always been partial to Auburn guys. I think he's had seven different offensive coordinators his last seven years. I also think he's gotten a little better every year and think he can actually help turn the Raiders around. He's only 28. Al Davis is hoping he's the next Jim Plunkett. It's definitely worth a roll of the dice. I expect good things and see the Raiders winning eight this year.

17.) Chad Henne, MIA: I probably should give Henne and Matt Moore incompletes, but I put them here because I like them both. Henne's only had thirteen starts and the threw more INTs then TDs last year but I like his upside. Brandon Marshall should help. I think the Dolphins are going to be in that 7-9 win territory again this year, but Henne could turn out to be the long-term guy at QB. I don't see stardom, but I do see a useful player. The only downside is Tyler Thigpen is on the bench behind him and I think Thigpen can also be a very good player.

18.) Matt Moore, CAR: This is the guy to watch. I think Moore is going to be a star. After starting some games as a true freshman at UCLA, Moore ended up transferring to Oregon St. He had a good senior year but ended up going undrafted. He signed with Dallas as a free agent in the spring of 2007 and had an excellent preseason. He was cut in the last round of cuts as Dallas was looking to sneak him through waivers and onto the practice squad. It didn't work. Carolina claimed him the next day. He finished 2007 as the Carolina starter going 2-1 and was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the month in December. In the last game of the 2008 preseason he broke his fibula and missed the entire year. Moore got to start the last five games for the Panthers in 2009 after Jake Delhomme broke a finger. He went 4-1 and led the team to wins over Minnesota, the NYGiants and the Saints. He threw eight TDs against two INTs. I think Moore has huge upside. Keep an eye on him.

19.) Matt Cassel, KC: Matt Leinhart's now the backup in Houston and Cassel is the starter in KC. Talk about one guy turing a good break into a lot of money and the other blowing his career. This is the year for him to show that he really belongs. He's already made 30 career starts. It will be a make or break season for him. Chiefs fans should be praying he doesn't get hurt because Brodie Croyle is the backup.

These guys are all different in style but exactly the same. They can be good at times but have limited upside. They are all capable, but not one is going to get his team to the playoffs and each is now more part of the problem than the solution. That pretty much covers it.

20-23.) Matt Hasselback, SEA; Kyle Orton, DEN; Vince Young, TEN; David Garrard, JAX

I think the heading is self-explanatory.

24.) Alex Smith, SF: I don't really like putting Smith in this group, but the numbers suggest he belongs. He is 16-24 as a starter. He's thrown 37 touchdowns and 43 interceptions and has never had a passer rating above last year's 81.5. Yet Alex Smith is the most important player in the NFL. I wrote about it here in my gambling preview. The NFC West is going to be horrible. San Francisco should win five division games just by showing up. They also have a bunch of other patsies on the schedule. They have a great defense and good skill position guys on offense. If Smith is average they should win 9-10 games. If he's good they could win 13. If he's bad he'll never get another chance. Big season for Alex. Get some money down on SF as your SB darkhorse.

25.) Jake Delhomme, CLE: Let's get this out of the way up front. Teammates love Jake Delhomme. Okay. Got it. Shortly after throwing six interceptions in a home playoff loss in early 2009, the Carolina Panthers inexplicably signed Delhomme to a five year extension for $42.5 million. At the end of the year they cut him and will pay him almost $13 million not to be their QB this year. In steps Cleveland who signs Jake and pays him $7 million this year. Now for the good part. Carolina GM Marty Hurney apparently didn't put an offset clause in Delhomme's contract. This clause, common in NFL contracts, protects a team from paying a player the full guaranteed amount owed if he is playing for another team. With the clause Carolina could offset $7 million of the amount they owed and would only pay him about $6 million this year. But, nope, didn't get it in there. They will be paying the full amount. How does Hurney keep his job? And who the hell was Cleveland bidding against? Seriously. Delhomme threw eight touchdowns and eighteen interceptions last year. Sure Holmgren knows quarterbacks but this is all-around insanity. Jake Delhomme is going to make $20 million this year. What a country.

26.) Trent Edwards, BUF: Trent went to Stanford. I'm sure that will be useful when he is looking for gainful employment next year.

27.) Derek Anderson, ARI: How far have the Cards fallen since almost winning the Super Bowl two years ago? Derek Anderson? I love that Anderson went to the Pro Bowl one year when 23 guys pulled out and now it's on his resume and people point to it like that means he's good. He's not. Can't Kurt Warner pull a Brett Favre, come back and keep this team from losing 12 games? How bad must Matt Leinhart be that he couldn't win the job? Only questions in Arizona. It ain't gonna to be pretty.

These guys haven't played enough to have a great sense of who they are, but here's a quick thought or two on each.

Matthew Stafford, DET: I think he'll be the real deal. Detroit might actually win six or seven games this year.

Mark Sanchez, NYJ: Based on Hard Knocks I like the guy and he seems like a great teammate. Unfortunately for Jets fans he needs to become a better quarterback. Fast. If I were a Jet fan I'd be a little worried.

Kevin Kolb, PHI: I think the Eagles did the right thing by giving him a shot. Fortunately he'll get the tender, loving care that Eagles fans give all their players. If he gets off to a bad start it shouldn't be too much of an issue. Right. After opening with the Packers at home they get three relatively easy games. We are going to find out a lot about Mr. Kolb in the first month. If they're 1-3 he's going into the Witness Protection Program.

Josh Freeman, TB: Lots of raw talent, no polish. His team stinks. It's gonna be a long couple years in Tampa.

Sam Bradford, STL: We started with Peyton Manning. He went 3-13 his rookie season. That seems like a good bet for Bradford and the Rams. I'm not sure he can then go 13-3 next year like Peyton did, but I think he has a  chance to be not just good, but great.

And there it is. The starting QB class of 2010. Comments welcome. Enjoy the season.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Neil Walker and the Chase for NL ROY

Honestly, I haven't paid any attention to the National League Rookie of the Year Award until this past week. The Pirates are finishing a miserable season and while they do have some good young players eligible for the Award, none seemed Award-worthy. That's all changed. Neil Walker has gone off. In Walker's last nine games he's hitting .429/.442/.905 for a Bondsian OPS of 1.347. Walker is behind the eight-ball in this race because he was not a heralded prospect coming into the year. It doesn't help that he plays for a team that was out of the playoff race on May 15 and gets national attention only for its incredible string of losing seasons. But I think it's worth doing a little bit of work to see where Walker falls on the list.

For amusement (clearly mine, not most or yours), I'm going to post Walker's case versus one of the other four or five most viable candidates each day and get your comments as to who you would vote for. Obviously the season isn't over, but I will do this over the next week and then update it if Walker continues to rake. It's one of the few points of interest as the Bucs play out the string.

Buster was the fifth overall pick in the 2008 Major League Baseball Draft. (The Pirates took Pedro Alvarez with the second pick in that draft.) That year Posey won the Golden Spikes Award given annually to the best player in amateur baseball. Like Walker, Posey was a September call-up last year, but only got 17 at bats, and like Walker, Posey started 2010 in AAA. The Giants started Posey in the minors for team control reasons even though he was clearly their best catcher. GM Brian Sabean got lucky as catcher Bengie Molina started the season on fire, sporting an .880 OPS as of May 12. (Molina was traded to Texas June 30. Since May 13 he is hitting .200/.239/.269 for an OPS of .508 in 245 ABs and 265 PAs. As a point of reference, Aki Iwamura hit .182/.292/.267 for an OPS of .558 in 165 ABs, 193 PAs during his time with the Pirates.) Predictably, Molina cooled off and Posey was called up on May 29. He played primarily first base until Molina was traded on June 30. Since then he has been the Giants everyday catcher with the occasional start at first. Here are Posey's numbers compared to Walker's:

                        G    PA       AB      R       H     2B   3B   HR   RBI  SB/CS  BB  SO   BA/OBP/OPS    OPS+
POSEY:         85     347    319     43    104   19     2    11     55     0/2    21    42   .326/.360/.482  128
WALKER:      85    360    333     45     104   25     3    10     51     2/2    20    71  .312/.354/.495  128
You probably cannot find two players in the major leagues whose offensive numbers are more similar. Walker strikes out a bit more often, but otherwise they are identical. Walker was called up May 25 and won/was handed the starting second base job within a week. Posey was called up May 29 and took over the catching job the end of June. I'm hesitant to cite advanced defensive statistics because we have such a small sample size, but Posey clearly plays the more difficult position and has thrown out 34% of would-be base stealers. While I think Walker has played a reasonably good second base, UZR and +/- have a negative opinion of his defense thus far.
If the vote were held today I don't think there is a reasonable case to make for picking Walker over Posey. In fact, even if Walker continued his torrid streak through the balance of the season it might be difficult to argue for him due to the significant difference in defensive value. Nonetheless, the comparison to Posey is a good one for showing what an excellent offense season Neil Walker is actually having, though it has been largely overlooked by baseball fans and the media.